By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
In Sanditon, Jane Austen gave us a send-up of the health and wellness industry. Miss Lambe, a mixed-race heiress, is a young woman who comes to Sanditon, with a guardian, in search of better health. Many have found her to be the most intriguing character in Sanditon. At age 17, Miss Lambe is younger than most of Austen’s heroines.
Miss Lambe seems positioned to be a major part of Sanditon, although not, perhaps, significant enough to be a heroine.
We see very little of her in the fragment, and we never hear her speak. But even before she arrives in Sanditon, she’s talked about. She’s speculated on as if she’s a commodity herself. First, she’s described as a young lady of immense fortune, then as a young West Indian of large fortune, and then as a young West Indian of large fortune in delicate health. With each description, the story adds one more detail for the reader to form a mental picture of her, by age, wealth, origin, and embodiedness.
When she arrives in Sanditon, two more sentences further describe her. Miss Lambe is called “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender”. She had “a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan”. This is a remarkable, complex description.
Speculations behind the Name
Miss Lambe’s name has prompted a great deal of speculation, too. She’s sometimes described as positioned in the text as if she’s a lamb being led to slaughter. If that’s the case, perhaps the story is setting her up for a fall. The story may not be poised to be entirely sympathetic to her. But it’s also possible that the lamb here is presented as a figure of innocence.
In William Blake’s poem ‘The Lamb’, from his Songs of Innocence and Experience of 1789, the lamb is a figure of fragility and godliness. It’s compared to Jesus, who’s called the Lamb of God. In Blake’s poem, the lamb’s voice is described as “tender”. It’s precisely the same word used by Austen to describe Miss Lambe.
A ‘Black Sheep’?
Blake’s poem was illustrated, and the illustration accompanying it is full of white sheep. But Austen’s Miss Lambe is described not as white or Black. She’s not described as mulatto either but as ‘half-mulatto’. Mulatto is a now a disgraced term. It is derived from the root for the word mule. Mulatto is a racist term that compares humans with a Black and a white parent to a hybrid animal, born of a donkey and a horse.
‘Half-mulatto’ is a phrase that suggests that Austen wants us to understand Miss Lambe as descending from one black and three white grandparents. But it also makes clear that Miss Lambe is defined by the one black one. This, too, has led critics to ask what Austen meant by naming her character ‘Lambe’. Was Miss Lambe being presented to readers as a ‘black sheep’? Or was she, echoing William Blake, there to remind readers of the innocence and humanity of all of gods’ creatures?
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The scholar Victoria Baugh has discovered how rare a term ‘half-mulatto’ was at the time when Austen was using it in Sanditon. The question that critics have asked is why Austen would employ that phrase.
One answer is that Austen was, like other privileged members of 19th century British culture, half-blind to the ways in which the term and her character serve to limit and dehumanize. One critic with this perspective has referred to Sanditon as showing us the “silence of Miss Lambe”. In this reading, Austen’s Miss Lambe is an un-thoughtful creation, born out of its author’s racial privilege. As a character, Miss Lambe merely reinforces the limited views of race and gender in the past.
But where some have seen Austen’s conservatism on issues of race, class, and gender, others have seen something more progressive. It’s interesting that Austen chooses to make Miss Lambe an heiress and therefore a desirable wife. The story didn’t continue far enough for us to see how the greedy social climbers in Sanditon would treat a mixed-race heiress. But Miss Lambe isn’t just wealthy. She’s the wealthiest young woman in the story, with a maid of her own and the best room. She’s of the “first consequence” in every party she’s in. That status would seem poised to reveal the hypocrisy of limited, biased attitudes toward wealth then and how they might trump the culture’s otherwise limited, biased attitudes toward race.
‘Chilly’ Miss Lambe
The narrator’s employing the word ‘chilly’ is interesting here, too. That it’s being used to describe Miss Lambe is sometimes seen as an insult. It’s possible that the word ‘chilly’ meant Austen is implying that the character is somehow reserved or devoid of warmth.
However, that seems quite unlikely, especially because the word is coupled with ‘tender’ in Austen’s description. Miss Lambe is said to be “chilly and tender”. This may mean that Miss Lambe is sensitive to cold and easily chilled, which was also a meaning of the word “chilly” in this era. This would also be a probable and stereotypical response to the English climate for a girl raised in the West Indies. It may be foreshadowing for us that she will find the climate of Sanditon too uncomfortable and to be sensitive to cold.
There’s no place in a seaside resort where that’s more likely to become a problem than while sea bathing. If Miss Lambe is in delicate health, and sensitive to cold, then only a monstrously bad medical man would send her into cold water to supposedly help her. Yet that seems a likely next step for this story to have taken. However, this is speculation.
Common Questions about the Intriguing Character of Miss Lambe in Austen’s ‘Sanditon’
First, Miss Lambe is described as a young lady of immense fortune, then as a young West Indian of large fortune, and then as a young West Indian of large fortune in delicate health. She is also called “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender”.
In William Blake’s poem ‘The Lamb’, from his Songs of Innocence and Experience of 1789, the lamb is a figure of fragility and godliness. It’s compared to Jesus, who’s called the Lamb of God.
The term ‘half-mulatto’ suggests that Jane Austen wants us to understand Miss Lambe as descending from one black and three white grandparents. But it also makes clear that Miss Lambe is defined by the one black one.